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Hutch burst through the doors of the hospital and ran, his heart thudding painfully in his chest and every nerve screaming. The corridor stretched endlessly before him and it seemed to take hours to run that scant few feet between him and Huggy and Dobey, who were standing close together, staring into the window of the ICU room where Starsky lay. Dobey'd said he needed to get there fast. That could only mean one thing...
He skidded to a stop beside the other two men and looked through the window, the window he'd stared into for hours, days...watching machines breathe for his best friend, watching the beeping of a heart monitor, watching in vain for a sign of life from the man who lay in that bed, the man who was more than a friend, or a partner, or a brother...waiting for those eyes to open. Those eyes that had shed tears with and for him, laughed with him, shot daggers at him on occasion...But the eyes had stayed closed. The body had stayed motionless. And hope had slowly faded, in spite of Hutch's stubborn fight to keep hoping, keep praying, keep that man in there alive through sheer force of will if necessary.
Starsky's inert form was surrounded by doctors and nurses. The monitor...oh, God, the monitor showed a flat line! And then a doctor took paddles and laid them against Starsky's body, making it jerk violently in the bed. But the monitor...Hutch swallowed hard. There was no response. He never noticed the hand Dobey laid on his shoulder, didn't hear the quiet sound of Huggy's tears. His whole world had narrowed to two things: The monitor, and the body in the bed.
Finally, the doctors and nurses gave up. The doctor turned, looked through the window at the three men standing there, and shook his head. Then, very deliberately, he pulled the sheet up over Starsky's face.
"Hutch? Hutch, wake up!"
Hutch moaned, and stirred. Vaguely, he noticed he was drenched with sweat. His heart was pounding. He couldn't open his eyes; his body wouldn't obey him. He moaned again.
"Hutch, come on. Come on, pal, open your eyes."
Finally, Hutch managed to open his eyes and look up into an anxious pair of midnight blue eyes above him. "Must've been one hell of a bad dream," Starsky said with a smile. "You were hollerin' like you were gettin' murdered."
"Starsk?" Hutch sat up and grabbed his partner in a bear hug, memory coming back just in time to keep him from squeezing too tight. Starsky was still healing, though he was out of the hospital and -- thank God! -- was expected to fully recover.
"Hey," Starsky said, surprised. "What was that for?"
Hutch let go, realized there were tears drying on his face, and made a clumsy attempt to wipe them away discreetly. He didn't fool Starsky, however, who narrowed his eyes at him.
"What? You better tell me."
Hutch shook his head, not trusting his voice just yet.
Taking a deep breath to steady his voice, Hutch finally answered, "Just glad to see you up and around, buddy, that's all."
Starsky's eyes stayed narrowed. "I've been 'up and around' for three days, Hutch. In a few more days, Doc said, I can be trusted by myself again. In a month I can go back to desk work. And after that, I can go back out on the street," he grinned, "long as I avoid bad guys with machine guns." He stopped when he saw the look of pain cross Hutch's face. "All right, dammit. What is it?"
Hutch shook his head again. He didn't really know himself. While Starsky was lying in that room, so still, he'd thought he'd die, too, if Starsky did. The only thing that kept him going was having that sonofabitch Gunther to catch and bring in. And then, that glorious moment when he'd looked at that bed and seen Starsky's eyes, open, focused, and looking back at him, he'd never been so relieved and so glad to see anyone wake up in his entire life.
But it was over now. Starsky was home, safe and sound. Gunther was headed for prison, and wouldn't be getting out any time soon, if ever. Starsky was still in a lot of pain, sure. He had to be careful. But he was going to be okay, and nobody, nobody, but Hutch was going to watch over him and make sure he stayed okay.
So why did he still wake up in the night and slip into Starsky's room to just stand there and watch his friend's chest move up and down in a reassuringly regular rhythm? Why did he still have these horrible, gut-wrenching nightmares of watching that doctor pull the sheet up over Starsky's face? And why, when he woke up from those dreams, did he have such a hard time remembering that Starsky hadn't died?
Starsky waited patiently and finally Hutch looked up at him again. He shrugged a little helplessly. "I guess I...well, this whole thing was kinda rough on the rest of us, too, pal."
"Tell me what you just dreamed," Starsky said quietly.
"No, it was just a nightmare. I'm fine. Go back to bed."
Hutch started to shake his head again, but Starsky gave him a very straight look, so he sighed, rubbed his eyes, and said, "It was the hospital, and the...the...cardiac arrest."
"I see." Starsky was silent for a few moments. "Why did you yell like that?"
"Like somebody was killin' ya. Slowly. I heard it all the way in there," and Starsky nodded down the hall toward his bedroom. "You never used to talk in your sleep, buddy. Much less yell."
"I'm sorry I woke you."
Starsky waved a hand. "Don't worry about that. What made you yell?"
Hutch didn't want to tell him. He felt stupid about laying any of this in Starsky's lap, anyway, because Starsky was the one who had suffered, who had been shot, who had the long months of convalescence to get through. Why should Hutch's bad dreams be added to that burden?
"It was just so...real," he finally said lamely.
"Hutch," Starsky leaned a little forward from his seat on the coffee table, and Hutch belatedly realized he shouldn't be letting Starsky sit on a hard surface like that for so long. He hastily scooted over and cleared a spot on the couch, patting it invitingly. Carefully, Starsky moved to the couch, sighing as he settled back into the soft cushion. "Now, look, I know I missed a lot of what was going on outside that room. We've been through some of that. And what you didn't tell me, Huggy did. But you're holding something back, and I want you to tell me. Come on, Hutch. I want to help. You'd do it for me."
Did Starsky have nightmares, too? Hutch wondered. He must. God, he was the one who'd almost...died. And he'd been a lot more quiet and thoughtful since coming home from the hospital.
"Starsk, are you okay? I mean, if you want to talk or anything, you know I'll listen..."
Starsky gave an exasperated little sigh, but his eyes were twinkling. "Listen to ya. I know that, Hutch. I'm fine. Really. We were talking about you."
"It helps just seeing you walking around here," Hutch said at last. "Knowing you made it. Again. This was a close call, buddy. Too close."
"Yeah." Starsky looked down at his hands and played with the belt of his robe in silence for a few moments. "You still haven't told me why you yelled like that. I've never heard you sound like that."
"Like what?" Hutch asked.
Starsky looked up again and his eyes were serious. "Lost. Hopeless. Like..."
"Like I'd lost my best friend?" Hutch finished without thinking. He hadn't meant to say it aloud.
"I almost did."
"I know the feelin'," Starsky said.
"Yeah, I guess you do."
"How often do you have this dream?"
"Every night," Hutch said, again without thinking. Dammit. I didn't want him to know that. What is it about this guy that makes me tell him things I didn't want to say?
Starsky let out a low whistle. "Every night? For how long?"
Reluctantly, Hutch said, "Ever since the shooting. When I actually get to sleep, that is."
"Holy shit, Hutch, why haven't you said anything before?" Starsky demanded.
Hutch shrugged. "I didn't want to bother you with it. You're the one who's hurt. You don't need this. Let it go. I'll be all right."
Starsky rubbed his eyes, ran a hand through his hair, and shook his head. "I'll be damned. I didn't know it was that bad. And I didn't know you were busy playing the strong and silent type, carryin' this around all by yourself. That's just dumb, Hutch. What the hell else are friends for, if it ain't to share your troubles with? What can I do for ya?"
"Just keep breathing," Hutch said, with a tremor in his voice he hadn't known was there until he spoke.
Starsky's own eyes stung a little, and he said, "I plan to keep doin' just that, don't worry." After a moment's silence, he said, "Is that the part that made you holler? Come on, now. Tell me."
Steadying his voice with an effort, Hutch said, "No. It was the part where they gave up and..." he couldn't even say it.
"Gave up?" Starsky was puzzled. "But they didn't give up...ohhh." His brow cleared. "You dreamed I died? Is that it?"
"And every night I have to relive watching them pull that goddamned sheet over you," Hutch suddenly burst out, unable to keep it in any longer.
Starsky waited a moment, to allow Hutch time to collect himself again, then he said, quietly, "Hey, it's just a dream, babe. It ain't real."
"I know," Hutch said. "It's just that it takes a while after I wake up to remember that. Sometimes I have to get up and go in there and make sure you're really there. It was just...too close."
"We've had close calls before."
"Not that close. Not close enough that one of us actually...stopped breathing. And Starsk, have you thought about how many of those close calls have been you? Bellamy, Marcos, Gunther...."
Starsky nodded. "But how many have been you? The time you rolled your car, the plague, that sonofabitch Forrest. I'd say we're about even, pal."
"I don't think I could take it again."
"You want to quit?" The question was asked in a level, conversational tone, not with the horror that Hutch remembered his partner asking that same question in the past.
Starsky shook his head. "No. Crazy as it sounds, no, I don't. But I'll tell ya something, buddy boy, if you do, I do, because I ain't goin' out there with anybody else, and I ain't trustin' nobody else to watch my back. If shit like this happens with a guy's best buddy watchin' out for him, imagine what would
happen if it was some yahoo who didn't give a damn about me." He smiled.
In spite of himself, Hutch laughed.
Starsky reached out and gave Hutch a pat on the shoulder. "You okay now? Think you can go back to sleep?"
"Yeah. And I'll try to be quiet about it this time."
"If you have any more bad dreams, for cryin' out loud, say so, will ya?" Starsky said with mock indignation. "We're in this mess together, pal, for the long haul. We gotta watch each other's backs, both on and off the street. You got that, Blintz?"
"Yeah. 'Night, Starsk."
"'Night, Hutch." Starsky slid out, preparatory to standing up, but it still wasn't easy for him, so Hutch leaped up and gave him a hand, then a hug, before watching him make his way down the hall to his bedroom. Walking. Breathing. And still as ornery as ever, Hutch thought fondly as he lay down and closed his eyes.